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Jana Robbins: Cy's Matters

Filichia sings the praises of Jana Robbins as she sings the songs of Cy Coleman. logo

Jana Robbins
Saw Marsha Eisenberg sing the works of Seymour Kaufman. Well, it was Jana Robbins, actually, singing the songs of Cy Coleman. But she confided to all at Arci's Place that Marsha Eisenberg was her real name when she was growing up in Johnstown (in Pennsylvania!), and Seymour Kaufman was the moniker that Cy Coleman had when he was growing up in the Bronx.

Robbins, nee Eisenberg, said her coming up with her new name almost cost her a job, for no sooner had she chosen it than she had an audition for South Pacific at Jones Beach in the early '70s. So when the stage manager called out "Jana Robbins!" she didn't immediately respond. It took three times before she realized he meant her. But she did rally--and, P.S., got the job.

I first discovered Robbins in 1973 in Good News, during the first stop on the Boston tryout. This was the infamous performance where star Alice Faye (for whom Robbins stood by) sang the come-hither song "I Want to Be Bad" and some audience member shouted out, "You are, honey!" (Indeed, he told the truth.) But Faye was the only flaw of a show that looked smashing, with a terrific "Varsity Drag," and was ready for New York. Alas, that opening wouldn't happen for more than a year; by then, when the show finally got to the St. James, it was no The Producers. Anyway...there was Robbins, in the small role of Pat, with one of those cloche hats with an enormous pom-pon on top (her sweater had pom-pons on it, too). And, though this was well more than a quarter-century ago, I still remember her fondly putting over one of the show's first songs, "He's a Ladies Man"--at which point I became a Jana Robbins man.

She didn't disappoint me at Arci's. Every cabaret singer does at least one piece where two songs are thematically linked, but Robbins did one of the few that really works: "Nobody Does It Like Me" from Seesaw paired with "You Can Always Count on Me" from City of Angels. (I did think two syllables were missing when she sang "What I sound like is a broad"; she should have added "-way star" to that phrase.) Robbins was terrific, especially considering that she'd been preoccupied for the previous four days. That's because she stands by for both Valerie Harper and Michele Lee in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife and had to sub for Lee for five performances, including the Sunday matinee before her opening at Arci's on Sunday night. She apologized for going on without having had a tech rehearsal, but everything went smoothly.

Actually, a woman celebrating Cy Coleman is a good idea, for the man has written most of his musicals with women lyricists: Wildcat and Little Me with Carolyn Leigh, Sweet Charity and Seesaw with Dorothy Fields (with whom he might have written more had she not died), Home Again, Home Again with Barbara Freid, and On the Twentieth Century and The Will Rogers Follies with Betty Comden (who, of course, shared her assignment with you-know-whom). Only I Love My Wife, Barnum, Welcome to the Club, and The Life have been ol' boys clubs. And, of course, there are all those fascinating female characters that Robbins has musicalized: Wildcat Jackson, Belle Poitrine, Charity Hope Valentine, Gittel Mosca, Lily Garland. "Women who want to make something better of their lives," Robbins astutely noted during the show. "Women who have the courage to follow their own dreams."

When she gave a snappy rendition of "On the Other Side of the Tracks," I remembered asking Coleman about the song when I was interviewing him for City of Angels. I had to bring up the fact that, when Little Me opened in London in the mid '60s, Variety listed the songs in the show and I saw the unfamiliar title "At the Very Top of the Hill" in the spot usually occupied by "On the Other Side of the Tracks." Then I put two-and-two together; obviously, the expression "on the other side of the tracks"--meaning a better life--didn't mean anything in England. Their expression for the same concept must be "at the very top of the hill." Fine. But when the London cast album came out some months later, there was "On the Other Side of the Tracks." Did I just imagine "At the Very Top of the Hill"? (No, Coleman told me on that day in December 1989: Neither he nor Leigh liked the lyric to "At the Very Top of the Hill," so they reverted back to the old lyric and hoped that the Brits would catch their meaning.)

Much of Robbins' repertoire at Arci's was devoted to Coleman-Leigh. She sang their pop hits "When in Rome" (with the seldom-heard verse) and "Witchcraft" (with a verse I'd never heard before). Robbins didn't dig deep into the Coleman-Leigh break-up, which was a sad one: Leigh was definitely one of the great lyricists of all time, with a distinctive, earthy quality, but she was said to be difficult (Robbins was diplomatic in not mentioning that). How well I remember attending a songwriting class that Leigh gave to amateurs at the YMHA on 92nd Street. She started out sweet as pie but wound up tough as leather, as she couldn't bear the novices' mistakes.

As Robbins pointed out, Coleman and Leigh reunited to do a few new songs for the 1982 Little Me revival. She then proved they still had it with a saucily, curled-lip rendition of "Don't Ask the Lady." For the record, the two songwriters had previously reunited in 1976 to do some new songs for Hellzapoppin' with Jerry Lewis, though that didn't make it to the Minskoff as scheduled. (Too bad; producer Alexander H. Cohen was going to have a big ceremony where he christened that Minskoff walkway between 44th and 45th Streets "The Jerry Lewis Arcade.")

When all was said and sung, Jana Robbins did what she set out to do at Arci's Place: Reminded us what a great musical theater talent we have in Cy Coleman. Even if she just got up there and did the glorious "With Every Breath I Take" from City of Angels--and who else could have written a film noir jazz score?--she would have made the point. But Cy Coleman is fortunate to have so many of his songs sung in such a lovely showcase.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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